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The Makers Dozen: Islands of Brilliance Co-founder Mark Fairbanks

Apr. 9, 2020 at 8:50PM

Mark Fairbanks co-founded Islands of Brilliance with his wife Margaret in 2012. The organization’s premise - to pair children with autism with design professionals who can teach the students valuable software skills — has been profoundly life-changing for so many kids who have taken part in the program. In a former life, Mark was an award winning advertising agency art director. He has spoken at TedX conferences, The 3% Conference and frequents Creative Mornings, and he fancies himself an expert Pizzaiolo. He was happy to answer Commonstate’s Makers Dozen.

Why are you creative?

I don’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t dating back to my earliest memories of drawing and making stuff out of modeling clay. There was a gap between me and my older brothers and sisters by 7 years and I was alone a lot — so creativity and imagination were kind of my siblings. I don’t remember not being involved in art or theater or design. Now my creativity is more around organization and partnerships and community — you know, how do you take this and this and this and put it together to make this — it’s a different expression of it but I’m always thinking how to do things differently. It’s just applying it to community issues versus what I was doing in advertising.

What is something you do outside your job that keeps you creative?

There are two things — and they actually have direct parallels to Islands of Brilliance — gardening and cooking. If you look at our yard it’s a spectrum — the front is shady and woodland and the back is direct sun so it’s all prairie - so if you think about that — I call it painting with a shovel. From a gardener’s perspective each different plant needs different things — some needs sun and not a lot of water, others need shade. So when you look at what we do with Islands — with students — they are all completely different so we have to set up the right environment for them to flourish in. And then the cooking thing, growing up in an Italian family — we bought an outdoor pizza oven and we entertain volunteers and the community. It's a platform that parallels the program, bringing people together — the oven is my stage and my performance kind of thing. And you can’t get better pizza (laughs).

What’s something you saw recently that inspired you?

I’m lucky because I am constantly surrounded by inspiration. And it could be a cool idea that a child does or evidence of growth in them. Just over the weekend we had a student who is a little older, 18+, who suffers with severe anxiety. He’s been working with his mentor and has a wonderful anime illustration style. He has a service dog and he and his mentor would sit in the back corner. When he first came to the workshop his body language closed himself off. So this past weekend he was talking to Margaret and he had totally changed his physical body language from closed to be more trusting and open. It was amazing. 

What’s one thing you’ve created that defines who you are the most?

Islands of Brilliance. Although I’m really uncomfortable with the founder / creator thing because I don’t know that it’s entirely accurate. Certainly I connected some dots but Margaret was a huge part of that. And then there’s the volunteers - there are so many people involved in the creation of this thing that it's very different from saying “I did this design.” It’s more like I created the environment for this stuff to happen. The program encompasses so much of what I love. It has this mission and purpose to it that is amazing and humbling.

Name an Influential/Inspirational book everyone must read.

I read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh. I have a ton of his books and I actually re-read them. One of the first ones I read was “Peace Is Every Step.” He was a Buddhist Monk during the war. A lot of it is all about being present and staying in the moment. As humans we struggle with the past and the future — anxiety about the future, depression about the past. If you’re always in those two spots you're not here and here is where the magic is. His work is very accessible. Being more mindful and present kind of changed my outlook on a lot of things. It made me better suited to do the work that had to be done.

What do you carry around with you every day that is indispensable?

I’ve got three things in my left pocket right now. I have an orange USB drive, my dad’s World War II dog tag, and the other is a medal that was my mom’s. I carry them around every day. The USB is just to be prepared for any situation. The other two things — my mom passed away about three years ago and it was a longer process which was good because I was able to prepare for it. My Dad passed away when I was 17. But I started asking myself — I knew my mom’s influence in me but what was my Dad’s? He died when I was so young and I didn’t ever examine it. And as I started examining I began to understand that I carry both of them with me. I am equal parts them. My Mom was a passionate, creative Sicilian and my dad was this strategic, very prayerful, meditative guy — and if you look at it I’m like those things fused. It depends on what moment you catch me. I knew when my Mom passed these things would always be present in me physically from a molecular level. Those things are tokens or artifacts of me.

Most influential person in your creative life?

Wow that's a tough one. I don't know that there's a single person. I mean, Rich Kohnke was a huge influence from an art direction/design perspective but that was during the "advertising era" of my creative life. I would say my cousin Vic DeLorenzo (original drummer of the Violent Femmes) was an early influence, because he was always doing different things whether it was acting or music. So he was definitely a role model. Where I am now in the realm of social innovation I think comes from a constant restlessness to be doing something new and different, and apply design to systemic challenges. But I can't attribute the direction to a person. I pretty much had to figure out the path on my own.

How do you silence the doubts?

I think you need to be comfortable in quiet and solitude. Finding calm and quiet helps — you know, especially with the programs, we’re dealing with ambiguity all the time. And the ability to navigate ambiguity is a huge aspect of your comfort level. You work through the doubt — you accept it and say, “Okay doubt, now go sit over at that table.”

What’s your morning routine?

I get up pretty early, And I like the dark and the quiet and the clock ticking. Margaret and I get up together, we make breakfast every morning and have breakfast together. Then we either dissect the previous day or review what’s coming up over coffee. We both do yoga and meditation so it’s a very deliberate, slow approach to get into the day. I don’t get up and work anymore. I need that quiet and that space. I find that I’m more successful the emptier I am. So morning is this precious time with ritual.

Favorite/most productive meeting spot?

The couch in my living room — that’s where a lot happens. The studio space is open and collaborative so there are all kinds of spaces to meet there. I guess I find that the people who are involved are more important than the where.

If you weren’t doing what you're doing now, what would you be?

I’d be a pizzaiolo. A pizza maker. 

Greatest piece of advice you ever received?

Right after we started the program a guy by the name of Art Mellor, who was involved in the Miwlaukee startup scene and had worked as an executive director in Boston, he said “Do what you did in the first workshop over and over again until you can do it in your sleep. Don’t change anything.” We were going to start doing different things and he said no - do that over and over and over. The interesting thing is that now, that thing we first started with is still going strong and there’s still a ton of magic to it. And we can do it in our sleep. It still works.